RICHMOND — Twice in nine days, Eastern Kentucky got an up-close-and-personal look at the team that figures to stand in the way of a post-season tournament berth.
Twice, the Colonels came up short.
Pre-season favorite Belmont built a 15-point lead and withstood everything EKU could throw Saturday night, pulling out an 84-75 win before 5,500 fans in McBrayer Arena.
Belmont, No. 23 in the RPI, improved to 17-4 overall, 8-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
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Eastern, bidding for a share of the OVC East lead, dropped to 16-5 and 6-2.
"I told the team this in the locker room: There's not another team in our league, in the OVC Tournament, that's going to beat them," Colonels Coach Jeff Neubauer said. "It's on us. ... So if we want to go to the NCAA Tournament, it's not going to be hoping that some other team beats them."
EKU was again playing without Glenn Cosey (broken finger), and Deverin Muff (foot) was limited to four minutes. Yet, the Colonels felt they missed an opportunity.
Belmont, known for an outstanding music department, played sweet string music.
"For them to shoot 67 percent is just way too high a percentage, and I do want to give Belmont credit," Neubauer said. "They are a super basketball team. They perfectly understand how to ignite their offense."
The Bruins knew how to keep the offense hot, too. They made 31 of 46 shots (67.4 percent), including 11 of 15 three-pointers (73.3 percent).
Eastern shot well, too — 22-for-44 (50 percent) overall and 11-for-21 (52.4) long range.
Bad EKU defense or good Belmont offense?
A combination, Neubauer and Belmont counterpart Rick Byrd agreed.
"They would ship the ball from one side to the other," Neubuaer said. "We haven't allowed people to do that because we've had great ball pressure all year. ... That was a big part of them igniting."
And something that Byrd wanted to see after the Bruins won round one in Nashville, 83-76, on Jan. 17.
"They play unusually aggressive on defense. We had twenty-something turnovers the first game, way too many. They stood us up, they stripped us, made us look silly at times," Byrd said. "We were fortunate to win that game. ... When somebody is willing to do all that, you've kind of got to spread the floor and make their help come further. So we tried to penetrate and skip, and shot-fake and penetrate and skip; get those guys running to cover more ground."
Belmont put four scorers in double figures, led by Ian Clark with 21 on 9-for-14 accuracy, 3-for-3 from three-point range. J.J. Mann added 18 points and six assists, Kerron Johnson had 16 points and four assists, and Trevor Noack had 13 points and eight rebounds.
Corey Walden scored 24 for the Colonels. Mike DiNunno was next with 15 points and five assists. Marcus Lewis came off the bench to score 11.
Belmont made its first six shots, including a pair of three-pointers, to lead 14-8,
A 13-0 run gave the Bruins a 29-19 lead, and the margin was 42-31 at halftime.
Eastern chipped away again and again but never caught up.
Trailing 59-44, EKU went on a 14-6 rally to pull to within seven on a Lewis three-pointer with 9:17 left.
Belmont worked the lead back to a dozen, 75-63, with about five minutes left.
Walden scored seven in a row, including a three-pointer and a powerful baseline dunk, to fire up the crowd and make it a 75-70 contest at 3:25.
"Just got back on defense and try to make a stop," Walden said of his thought process.
DiNunno added a free throw with 2:54 left, missed the second, but got the ball back when Eric Stutz grabbed the rebound. DiNunno launched a three-pointer that would have made it a one-point game, but missed.
Eastern Kentucky at Tennessee-Martin
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.